Bob on Books Best Books of 2018


It’s the time of the year when numerous publications post their best books of the year. That has been a tradition at Bob on Books as well. A friend I was meeting with the other day described my reading tastes as “eclectic” and I suspect you will find that true of this list. It spans quite a number of categories, and probably leaves out categories you might find on other lists. Many but not all of these works were published in 2018. What qualifies them for this list is that I read and reviewed them in 2018. You will find that I have divided my list into two broad categories: books for general audiences and books primarily for Christian audiences. As always, I’ve included a link to the publisher’s website in the title of the book, and a link to the full review.

First of all, though, my Best Book of the Year:


GrantRon Chernow. New York: Penguin Press, 2017. This was also the longest book I read this year. I wrote: “It is rare to come to the end of 960 pages and wish there were more.” Grant was a bundle of contradictions, who could identify battlefield opportunities and frame grand strategy, yet who made poor choices in his closest associates and struggled with depression and alcoholism. Chernow captures all of this in flowing prose. Review

Best Books: General Audiences

Little Fires Everywhere

Best Novel: Little Fires EverywhereCeleste Ng. New York: Penguin Press, 2017. I wrote, “I was drawn into this book with its interesting portrayal of people trying to do good, to keep the rules, to find and make homes and do good work, to make their way in life, and the catalytic moments when it all goes awry.” A bonus for me was that this was written by an Ohio author! Review


Best Biography: Leonardo da Vinci, Walter Isaacson. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2018. I loved everything about this book from the quality of the paper to the generous quantity of images of Leonardo’s work to Isaacson’s portrayal of da Vinci’s insatiable curiosity. Review


Best Leadership Book: Leadership in Turbulent TimesDoris Kearns Goodwin. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018. Doris Kearns Goodwin went back to all her work on four presidents (Lincoln, the two Roosevelts, and Lyndon Johnson), and drew out what we might learn from how they led in pivotal moments of American history. This is not a rehash of earlier work but a different lens on these four men. Review

On Reading Well

Best Book on Books: On Reading Well, Karen Swallow Prior. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2018. As a bibliophile, I love books on books and reading and Karen Swallow Prior gives us a great one that not only explores great books, but how reading them can be transformative in our lives. Review

race on campus

Best Higher Education Book: Race on CampusJulie J. Park. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press, 2018. Because I work in collegiate ministry, I read books related to higher education studies. This one uses data to dispel a number of myths about race on campus. Review

The Cloud of Unknowing

Best Translation: The Cloud of Unknowing, Anonymous (translated by Carmen Acevedo Butcher). Boulder: Shambala Publications, 2018. I commented that “Butcher’s translation strives for a simplicity and informality of conversation between a spiritual director and a directee, and this is one of the most winsome aspects of this work.” Review


I still have Tara Westover’s Educated on my “to read” pile. I had the chance to read some preview passages and from these and other reviews, this would probably have been my choice of “Best Memoir.” I’ll let you know when I read it.

Best Books: Christian Audiences

love big be well

Best Christian Fiction: Love Big, Be Well, Winn Collier. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 2017. A fictional dialogue in letters between a pastor and congregation, ending with “Love Big, Be Well.” I found myself again and again catching my breath at the beauty Collier sees in “ordinary” church life freed of “flaming visions.” Review

Best Theology Books: There are two works that are a “tie” in my mind, so good I have to include both.

delivered from the elements of the world

Delivered From the Elements of the World, Peter J. Leithart. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2016. This was actually written a couple years back and is a refreshing exploration of why Christians claim the death and resurrection of Jesus is the decisive event in human history. Review

Dying and the Virtues

Dying and the VirtuesMatthew Levering. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2018. Levering explores nine virtues in scripture and contemporary scholarship, and their relevance to living and dying well. Review. Interview with Matthew Levering: Part One; Part Two

The Lord is Good

Best Biblical Theology Book: The Lord is Good: Seeking the God of the Psalter (Studies in Christian Doctrine and Scripture), Christopher R. J. Holmes. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2018. This is a study of what we mean when we say that the Lord is “good” focused in the Psalms. I noted that “Holmes is a pastor-theologian and brings to his readers both the carefulness of a scholar and the passion to lead us to more deeply love the good and beautiful God.” Review

Darkness Visible

Best Biblical Studies Book: Darkness Visible (Princeton Theological Monograph Series), Karlo V. Bordjadze (Foreword by R. W. L. Moberly). Eugene: Pickwick Publications, 2017. A study of Isaiah 14:3-23 considering the history of interpretation of this passage as portraying the fall of Satan, or a Babylonian king. I summarized this work “as a delightful model of rigorous biblical and theological scholarship in service of God’s people.” Review

The Kingdom of God Has No Borders

Best Christian History: The Kingdom of God Has No BordersMelani McAlister. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018. A study of the American evangelical missions movement over the past fifty years and the important questions that international missions raised for evangelicalism in the United States. Review

Invitation to Retreat

Best Spiritual Formation Book: Invitation to RetreatRuth Haley Barton. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press/Formatio, 2018This is perhaps the most helpful book I’ve ever read on the why and how of taking retreats, full of practical wisdom. Review

Best Spiritual Biography Books: Two books, both published by Plough Publishing rose to the top, for their subjects, the judicious choice of writings, and artistic excellence characteristic of the graphical work in each book.

Water at the Roots

Water at the Roots, Philip Britts (edited by Jennifer Harries, foreword by David Kline). Walden, NY: Plough Publishing, 2018. Brits was a kind of British Wendell Berry, who helped lead the Bruderhof community in Paraguay. The work narrates his life, incorporating verse and essays. Review

the scandal of redemption

The Scandal of RedemptionOscar Romero (edited by Carolyn Kurtz, Foreword by Michael Lapsley). Walden, NY: Plough Publishing, 2018. We glimpse the courageous life and death of El Salvador’s Archbishop Oscar Romero through nine homilies, and the prayer spoken at a funeral mass, moments before his assassination. Review

the myth of equality

Best Book on Justice or Social Issues: The Myth of Equality, Ken Wytsma. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2017. A white pastor addresses the need for an honest conversation about white privilege in America. Review

If you’ve made it this far, I commend you for perusing a long list. One of the things about reviewing is that it has given me an appreciation for the magnificent writing, thoughtful commentary, and careful scholarship that I encounter in so many of the books I read. Hopefully, there is something you can put on your own wishlist, or give to someone you care about this holiday season.


Review: Faith for This Moment

Faith for this Moment

Faith for This MomentRick McKinley. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2018.

Summary: Explores what it means to live as a Christian in a polarized and secularized society, drawing on the idea of exile in scripture and proposing practices that sustain faithfulness in exile.

Rick McKinley, like many Christians, wrestles with what Christian faithfulness looks like for the church he pastors in Portland, Oregon, amid a secular and highly polarized American society. We can look for who to blame, resort to denial and despair, or recover an idea of understanding our situation upon which Jews and Christians have drawn through the centuries–the idea of exile.

McKinley traces the idea of exile through scripture, from the first exiles from the garden, down through Abraham and Sarah, Israel in Egypt, the Jews in Babylon, and the church scattered through the Roman empire. McKinley lays out the alternatives of how exiles live:

“[T]he way in which the people of God navigated their faithfulness to God in exile was not to burn Babylon or to baptize Babylon but to find distinct ways to bless and resist Babylon.”

He argues that our calling as exiles is both to bless and resist our “Babylons.” We need to recognize both windows of redemption, places where we can engage the culture around issues of shared concern such as the arts or the environment, and windows of opposition, such as our consumer culture. To be people who know where to bless and resist, we need two critical skills–the discipline of repentance and the practice of discernment. In repentance, we acknowledge our indifference to God and to our society and are converted by God to people who begin caring about the things God cares about. Discernment helps us know what faithfulness looks like in particular situations such as becoming a reconciling presence in a polarized society.

McKinley contends faithfulness is empowered and lived out through five critical practices:

  1. Hearing and obeying–the centering practice that holds the others together.
  2. Hospitality: overcoming fear to welcome the stranger
  3. Generosity: repenting consumerism to recognize money and time are gifts and not possessions.
  4. Sabbath: turning from busyness to embrace rest and relationships
  5. Vocation: moving from the drudgery of jobs to the holy joy of living out a calling.

McKinley’s vision is for the church as a healing presence in a divided society. He writes:

“The move I am suggesting is what Miroslav Volf called a move from exclusion to embrace. What if we began to envision a nation in which we didn’t simply tolerate our differences but engaged one another around those deeply held convictions? What if we moved beyond polite disagreement to demanding safety for those with whom we disagree and defending the rights of those who hold convictions other than our own? What if we truly believed that each of us bears the image of God and has something to offer the other? What new types of civility might emerge among us? This new kind of relating could create new possibilities of understanding, out of which relationships could be born and change could become tangible.”

Oh, that it were so! Beyond this healing vision, what I like about McKinley’s book is that it both reflects insights of the likes of Volf and Newbigin (I also wonder if he has read Charles Taylor, James K. A. Smith, and other who have wrestled with secularity), and distills the best of these into a readable and practicable book for the rest of us. Others have written about Christians as exiles, and about formative practices, but I have not often seen all this thinking summarized so succinctly and translated into the real-life practice of a church.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.


Review: Husband, Wife, Father, Child, Master, Slave

Husband Wife Father Child Master Slave

Husband, Wife, Father, Child, Master, Slave, Kurt C Schaefer. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2018.

Summary: In contrast to many biblical scholars who argue that the “household codes” of scripture do indeed, for various reasons, affirm cultural role expectations, this work argues that Peter’s version is actually a subtle satire that opposes the cultural norms of Greco-Roman culture.

Contemporary biblical interpreters and teachers have explained the presence of the “household code” passages (Ephesians 5:21-33; Colossians 3:18-4:1; 1 Peter 2:13-3:7)  either as representing enduring role differences or as an accommodation of a nascent movement to powerful cultural norms eventually to be transcended. One thing that is true of most interpreters is that they agree that the biblical writers are affirming the existing “household codes,” perhaps with minor modifications. Of course this raises questions about slavery, as well as misogynous and patriarchal treatment of women. Most of those who endorse the permanent relevance of these role expectations sidestep slavery, substituting employment relationships, which in fact significantly differ from slavery.

Kurt C. Schaefer, a Calvin College economist, has ventured into this discussion, which may not be as disconnected from economics as one thinks since the word derives from the Greek words oikos and nomos, the word used for “household.” and “law” or management. Schaefer focuses his study on 1 Peter and contends that while Peter uses the form of a household code, the substance of what Peter says both in the immediate text and the context suggests that Peter is engaged in a subtle form of satire, a kind of parody of Aristotle, that actually dissents from the cultural norm, calling the Christian community to very different kinds of relationships.

Schaefer builds his case for this contention by first carefully studying the Aristotelian household codes that shaped Greco-Roman culture, observing how these are premised in underlying differences in the essence of different human beings–men and women, masters and slaves, parents and children. He goes on to show how Rome re-purposed these codes to undergird their imperial power.

Then Schaefer turns to 1 Peter. He argues that both the beginning and conclusion of the book emphasize the church’s non-conformity to the culture of the empire and the radical equality of all under divine grace, and that it just doesn’t make sense to include a section that urges conformity to cultural codes premised on fundamental inequality. But the reader then asks, how then ought we understand the household code passage? Schaefer handles this by a side-by-side comparison of Aristotle and 1 Peter.

Space prohibits a complete account of Schaefer’s treatment but a few key elements include the paradox that they live as servants of God and free people; that slaves should suffer for doing right, which assumes that slaves will not submit to the idolatrous worship of masters or any other sinful practice; that there are no instructions to masters, perhaps because Peter assumed that no Christians would have slaves (there are such instructions in Paul, however); and that wives not focus on outward adornment (the expectation of Roman culture) but inward character and virtuous behavior.  He notes there is no parallel passage in Aristotle to Peter’s instruction to men, and that the language of husbands “honoring” wives reverses cultural expectations. Schaefer is essentially arguing that Peter turns the Aristotelian household code on its head, even while following the form of such a code.

One area where Schaefer may be challenged is in his proposed translation of hupotasso, often translated as “submit” or “subordinate oneself to,” as “engage with.” Part of his case is to argue that “engage with is both more complicated, and relationally rich, than merely “to obey” or conversely “to rebel.” This helps explain how a slave may remain “subject” to a master and yet suffer for doing right. They do not give implicit obedience in all things, or become recalcitrant. They may try to loyally serve while giving ultimate allegiance to God, and suffer if a master is unwilling to accept this. Schaefer’s proposal is tenuous in that he does not offer lexicographical support for this translation, either in discussing the root words or the usage of this word in extrabiblical literature. (Ann Nyland has argued that the primary extrabiblical usage of this word is found in various papyri, mostly private letters, where context suggests it means something like “support.”)

In his epilogue, Schaefer discusses the subsequent history of treatment by the early fathers of the church, and proposes that the early fathers follow his interpretation of 1 Peter. He notes the later reversion to Aristotelian understandings with the rise of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. He concludes by noting the continued embrace of Aristotelian versions of household codes in some parts of the church:

“In the twenty-first century, the Aristotelian impulse still has its advocates. Some of the church’s most influential leadership counsel male superiority relative to women, strong parental authoritarianism toward children, and social constructions that reinforce racial/ethnic privilege. As we have seen, this impulse is denounced by Peter’s great epistle.”

I think the strength of this work is the extensive cultural background work on household codes that serves as the basis for showing how 1 Peter parodies these codes as a form of dissent from them rather than support for them. His approach of setting 1 Peter and Aristotle side by side is instructive for showing how Peter’s vision of the household of God (1 Peter 2:5; 4:17) contrasts with the Aristotelian household. This reading removes the stumbling block of these texts’ implicit support for slavery and the subordination of women without treating the texts as anachronisms or accommodations. It also reminds us that it is possible for biblical writers to use satire and wit in their writing, something we may overlook in our seriousness about biblical authority.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.


Review: Amazing Jewish Heroes Down Through the Ages

Amazing Jewish Heroes

Amazing Jewish Heroes Down Through the AgesDavid Richard Goldberg. Springfield, NJ: Gefen Publishing House, 2017.

Summary: A collection of brief biographical sketches on eleven Jewish heroes from ancient to modern times.

Whatever one thinks of the State of Israel in present day international politics, the continued existence of the Jewish people, and the existence of a modern Jewish state seems little short of miraculous (and some would delete “little short of”). A part of this miracle are the heroic figures through Jewish history, who acted for the welfare of their people and others, and serve as role models for others in the Jewish community of Jewish faith and identity.

The late David Richard Goldberg was a financial consultant, an executive with a Florida construction services firm and a staunch supporter of various Jewish causes. In this book, he tells the stories of eleven Jewish heroes from ancient to modern times. He begins with two ancient figures, Queen Esther, who saved her from genocide, and Rabbi Akiva. The story of Rabbi Akiva may be less familiar — a descendant of converts to Judaism, an underling of a wealthy landowner who refused urgings to study Torah until the landowner’s daughter persuaded him to do so with the promise that if he became a great teacher of Israel, she would marry him! The rest is history, not only the marriage, but his leadership of Israel under Rome until martyred at the age of 120.

Part Two was an unexpected twist. Goldberg profiles two heroes of American wars. Haym Salomon provided critical financing that made possible the defeat of the British at Yorktown. Uriah Phillips Levy was the first Jewish naval leader to rise to the rank of commodore (now rear admiral) during the Civil War and helped end the practice of flogging in the Navy.

Part Three features two Holocaust survivors, Felix Zandman and Simon Wiesenthal. Wiesenthal’s survival from the camps and subsequent career in hunting down Nazi war criminals and making them answer for the Holocaust is better know. Zandman’s career is equally amazing–surviving seventeen months of Nazi occupation in an underground pit with five others until liberated. He went on to study engineering, physics, and applied mechanics, developed a technology to study the stresses on high performance equipment like jet engines, building his own firm, Vishay (named after an obliterated Lithuania village). Eventually Vishay acquired the micro-electronics unit of Telefunken, once owned by Jews.

The final part of the book covers five heroes engaged in the Zionist movement leading up to the State of Israel . The first was Theodor Herzl, credited with the birth of the Zionist movement. Given that prominent role, I was a bit surprised that this was one of the briefest biographical sketches in the book. Ze’ev Jabotinsky was one of the first to grasp that Jews would need to fight for a Jewish state, forming a militaristic youth movement, Betar, mentoring one of the other heroes in this section, Menachem Begin. The final three portraits then focus on David Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir, and Begin. We see the distinctive leadership styles of each, and the vehement conflicts that existed among the three even as they fought to birth the Jewish state of Israel and defend against its enemies. Their stories helped me grasp how deeply embedded the belief in a Jewish state was and is for a people who survived the Holocaust and could never again feel safe as a minority within another state.

What one finds here are not extensive critical biographies detailing flaws and failures as well as successes, although we get some glimpses of these with Ben-Gurion, Meir, and Begin. Rather these are, as the title states, sketches that draw out the heroic nature of each character, and are obviously very pro-Jewish and pro-Israel.

It seems this book is intended for two purposes. One is within Jewish families, particularly with upper elementary or middle school children, to learn more about the heroes of their heritage.  The other is for Jews later in life like one friend of the author, who was forced to re-think his beliefs about Judaism because of these stories.

With the recent synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh, it is clear both that antisemitism is far from dead and the quiet heroism is needed of us all to resist it. As an American, I’m reminded the great debt we owe the Jews for the very existence of our country, for scientific and technological advances, and for the many cultural treasures we enjoy. As a non-Jew, the book reminds of the lingering cloud of fear arising from the threat of genocide throughout history from Esther’s day to the Holocaust, and how heroically generations of Jews have lived in the face of that threat. Whatever else I think about the troubled history between Jews and Palestinians, this book reminds me of what the hope of a land of one’s own means to a people who spent two millenia struggling to survive and maintain an identity in the lands of others.

That alone is a heroic.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer program in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Great Flood of 1913


Flooding of Republic Steel Mills along the Mahoning River, Photo from Mahoning Valley Historical Society Archive

The Great Flood of 1913 is an event probably no one reading this remembers. But my grandparents, and those of their generation, talked about it. It rained for four days and nights between March 23 and March 26, 1913. Similar to the Thanksgiving snowstorm of 1950, three different weather systems came together and stalled over the Ohio Valley, blocked by a high pressure system to the east. Flooding occurred throughout Ohio with some of the worst flooding in southwest Ohio and in Columbus. But Youngstown suffered severely as well.

Estimates range between 4.26 inches and 7 to 9 inches of rainfall over the four day period in the Mahoning Valley. Back then there were no reservoirs or flood control measures and so all the water from the tributaries to the Mahoning River caused it to crest at 26.5 feet, 10 feet above the flood stage of 16.5 feet, and 7 feet higher than any previous storm. The peak discharge of the Mahoning River was estimated at 44,400 cubic feet per second.


Youngstown Daily Vindicator map of flooded areas, March 27, 1913

Youngstown is a hilly city, through which the Mahoning River runs. Therefore many areas of the city were spared flooding, but not the low lying areas along the Mahoning River and Crab Creek. Unfortunately, Youngstown’s steel mills were built in the flood plain as well as the railroads that served them. Parts of downtown adjacent to the river were also flooded, including The Vindicator. Flooding destroyed the West Avenue and Division Street bridges, took out the water pumping station and the power station on North Avenue. Ironically, Youngstown was without drinking water in the middle of a flood!


Flooding at the B & O Station, Photo from Mahoning Valley Historical Society Archive

Damage estimates at the time were estimated at $2.5 million in the Youngstown area and over $100 million statewide. Governor Cox mobilized National Guard troops to provide disaster assistance and prevent looting. Youngstown Fire Department personnel played a key role in helping pump water out of the North Avenue power station, enabling power to be restored, and out of the press pit of The Vindicator, allowing the newspaper to resume regular publication. All told, about 25,000 people were temporarily out of work.

Flooding had been a regular occurrence along the Mahoning River. Joseph G. Butler, in his history of Youngstown describes floods as a yearly event, though none as bad as this. Sarah Gartland, of the Mahoning Valley Planning Commission states that there were six major floods between 1880 and 1913. This flood led to major changes. The flooding of the water pumping station ultimately led to moving Youngstown’s water supply to Meander Reservoir. Bridges were designed with higher spans so debris wouldn’t build up and then sweep the bridge away.

Most important was the development of flood control measures along the tributaries to the Mahoning River. In 1973, a flood protection project was completed on Crab Creek. Eventually five dams were built creating reservoirs that helped control the flow of water into the Mahoning–the Milton Dam in 1917, Berlin Reservoir (1941-43), Mosquito Reservoir (1943-1944), Shenango Reservoir (1963-1967), and West Branch (Kirwan) Reservoir (1963-1966). A map showing the locations of these reservoirs can be found in an article by Stan Boney, showing how Youngstown is better prepared to withstand rainfall totals like those experienced in the 1913 flood. The Milton and Berlin Reservoirs work together and reduce flooding on the Mahoning River 3-5 feet.

So when you boat on Milton or one of the other reservoirs, thank the Great Flood of 1913  and hope those engineers are taking good care of those dams. The flood of 1959 (I’ll write about that someday, perhaps) is a once in 43 year event, the flood of 1913 a once in 200 year event. Given some of the extreme weather of recent years, a major rain event is only a matter of time.

While there are no longer the same industries along the Mahoning there once were, anything close to the river, in its flood plain is at risk. Given that the 1913 flood was ten feet over flood stage, and the dams may halve that, it does appear flooding could still occur. The master plan for the Youngstown Riverfront Park and Amphitheater indicates that much of the site is within the 100- and 500-year flood plains of the Mahoning River (the Covelli Center is just outside the 500-year boundaries). Let’s hope planners are taking that into account.

Review: Things Fall Apart

Things Fall Apart

Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe. New York: Penguin, 1994 (originally published 1959).

Summary: First of a trilogy portraying the confrontation of Igbo tribal culture and Christian missions and British colonialism.

Chinua Achebe described his youth in Nigeria as growing up “at the crossroads of cultures,” speaking Igbo at home, and English at school. In Things Fall Apart, Achebe portrays the initial intersection of these two cultures. He does so through a rising tribal leader in the village of Umuofia, Okonkwo. The story unfolds in three parts.

The first simultaneously develops the character of Okonkwo, and the sophistication of Igbo culture. Okonkwo grows up in reaction to a “devil may care” father, Unoka, who gains no titles, dies in debt, and in the Evil Forest of a swelling in the stomach, left unburied. Okonkwo strives for a different destiny. He wins a legendary wrestling match, is successful in farming yams, the staple crop, acquires three wives, and two of the four titles leaders in the village may obtain. He is a rising tribal leader.

Factors inward and outward keep unraveling this vision. He becomes the adoptive father of a hostage boy, Ikemefuna, who represents the qualities his own eldest son, Nwoye, lacks. Eventually, the tribal elders decree his death. Okonkwo is given the opportunity to not participate, yet he ends up striking the death blow, to not be thought weak This act shatters his relationship with Nwoye, who had also become close with Ikemefuna. Meanwhile, he has a daughter, Ezinma, who when near death, he heals and has the character he hoped for in his sons. The first part ends with a second death, when Okonkwo fires his gun during a wedding celebration. The gun explodes, a sixteen year old boy dies, and he is forced into exile with his family.

Part one also describes tribal life, its social customs, its healing practices, its commerce, its ways of resolving conflict, and the ways weddings are negotiated. It is obviously very different from European culture, and their are elements that would not be understood by outsiders, like exposing twin babies in the Evil Forest. But it is sophisticated, providing ways for men and women, and neighboring tribes to navigate their relationships with each other.

Part Two describes Okonkwo’s life in exile. He is supported by his friend Obierika, rebuked and encouraged by the members of his mother’s family, and nourished on the vision of how he will re-establish himself when he returns to Umuofia. It is during this time that Christian missionaries arrive in Mbanta, where he is living in exile. For the most part, they are an object of derision, except for the outcasts who are raised up. More significantly, the alienation of Okonkwo and his son, Nwoye is completed when Nwoye converts. Achebe describes the change that occurs in Nwoye:

“It was not the mad logic of the Trinity that captivated him. He did not understand it. It was the poetry of the new religion, something felt in the marrow.. The hymn about brothers who sat in darkness and in fear seemed to answer a vague and persistent question that haunted his young soul–the question of the twins crying in the bush and the question of Ikemefuna who was killed”

The church remains on the margins in Mbanta while Okonkwo throws a farewell feast in grand style.

Things are different back in Umuofia. There the mission work and the British who have come with them have made much greater inroads. The Reverend Brown, realizing that the traditional beliefs are strong, opens a school and a hospital. Tribal sons learn to read and write the language of the English and learn the stories of Christianity as they do. The medicine of the hospital is more powerful than tribal remedies in healing. The local trading post pays high prices for their palm oil. Their courts and officials establish English laws that resolve conflicts differently, and hang those who take lives. Okonkwo sees how these changes are undermining the tribe and tries to mobilize resistance, particularly when a different missionary takes a less irenic and a more culturally insensitive approach. As the title suggests, “things fall apart,” both for Okonkwo, the tragic hero, and the tribe.

Achebe’s portrayal helps us understand that the Igbo were not “savages,” but had a rich culture. Yet he also doesn’t dismiss the compelling character of the Christian message, particularly as it is portrayed in the words and deeds of Brown, who is highly respected, and respectfully discusses theology with tribal leaders who disagree with him. He gains through goodness. More troubling is the partnership between the missionaries and the colonial power, determined to subdue the tribes to colonial rule. The power of this novel is that it doesn’t resort to a simple binary of saying tribal life was good, the coming of Christianity bad, or the reverse. Rather, he portrays both the nobility and and fallibility of the people and institutions in both cultures, and the transition from one way of life to another, welcome by some, wrenching for others. Most of all, he helps us see all this from the perspective of the supposedly “primitive tribes” who were “pacified,” the title language used by the colonial commissioner for the book he was writing. He helps us see that these tribes were far from primitive, and that their encounter with colonialism was far from peaceful.

Review: The Lost World of the Israelite Conquest

the lost world of the israelite conquest

The Lost World of the Israelite ConquestJohn H. Walton and J. Harvey Walton. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2017.

Summary: Explores the biblical accounts of the Israelite conquest of Canaan, looking closely at the ancient Near East context and arguing that this was not a divinely commanded genocide or Holy War.

One of the more troubling parts of the Bible are the narratives of Israel’s conquest of Canaan, and the apparent genocide of the Canaanite people at God’s command. Often this is justified as a judgement on the wickedness of the Canaanites. It is even more disturbing when these texts are appropriated to justify other “Holy Wars” or culture wars against evil in society.

In this fourth installment to the “Lost World” series, John H. Walton is joined by his son J. Harvey Walton, in a close study of the biblical texts often understood as God’s command of Holy War against Canaan as divine judgement. Similar to Walton’s approach in other books in this series, the authors combine careful work on cultural backgrounds with close reading of the pertinent biblical texts. Like other books, they present their study as a series of propositions, grouped into six parts.

First, they lay groundwork in asking the question of how we interpret the Bible, emphasizing that it is an ancient document and that often our problem is what our expectations of what the Bible is, which differs from its true nature. In this case the Bible is neither defining what goodness is for us nor telling us about how to produce goodness, but rather in the context of God’s covenant with Israel, how God is bringing about the goodness he purposes. Thus, we must never read these texts as warranting Holy War or a kind of jihad in our own context.

Second, the Walton’s argue that the Canaanites are not depicted in scripture as guilty of sin and that the usual textual indicators for divine retribution against the Canaanites are absent. Critical to their argument is showing that Genesis 15:16 does not indicate that the Canaanites were committing sin, but that God is deferring his action against the Amorites, with whom he had allied.

Third, they argue that the Canaanites are not guilty of breaking God’s law because they did not partake of the covenant and its stipulations. Their expulsion from the land is not analogous to the expulsion of Israel from the land for their unfaithfulness to the covenant.

Fourth, the Waltons look at the language and imagery of the conquest and contend that the descriptions of the Canaanites follow ancient Near East conventions for describing an enemy as “invincible barbarians” Likewise, the behaviors described as “detestable” are from the framework of God’s ideals for Israel under the covenant and not indictments against the Canaanites for crimes against a covenant they are not under. And finally, the language of conquest recapitulates that of creation, in which disorder (chaos) is replaced with order (cosmos). Disorder must be cleared, not as punishment against the Canaanites, but to establish God’s covenant order through Israel.

The fifth part is perhaps most significant in its discussion of herem, most often translated as “utterly destroy.” They argue rather that it involves the idea of removing something from use, so that a new order or use can be established. Killing people is not inherent in herem, but rather the destroying of the identity of a community, particularly the identity markers associated with idolatrous worship. Killing may happen in the course of this, as it tragically does in all ancient wars, but this is not the focus of herem.

Finally, the authors contend that this offers a template for understanding the New Testament, not in attacking those outside the community of faith, but making herem all identities in conflict with absolute allegiance to the Lordship of Jesus. What is to be attacked and removed from use is not outsiders, but our own false allegiances, false identities or any identity that competes for paramount status with our identity in Christ.

This, along with the argument that God does not command ethnic genocide in these passages is important. Yet this argument left me troubled. The plain reality is that even if this wasn’t genocide, people died to set up this new order of God. If they died, not because they were guilty of sins or crimes against God (because they were outside the covenant and its stipulations), but simply as part of a process of destroying the identity of a community, this seems a distinction without a difference. The idea of retributive action at least seems to carry the sense of a just judgment, even if it does involve bloodshed. “Removing an identity from use” driving them from the land, seems more humane, except that the same number of people die, only as “collateral damage” of the conquest. There is something about this that seems more heartless. It also seems to dance around the plain sense of texts that herem in the context of the conquest does involve the destruction of lives in city after city. I did not feel the authors dealt adequately with this problem.

What I’m left with is that these are difficult texts, similar to Genesis 22 in which God commands the sacrifice of Isaac. The last minute substitution of the ram does not make this less challenging. Likewise demonstrating that these texts offer no warrant for genocide is only marginally comforting. Perhaps our difficulty is that we expect God to be nice, a “tame lion” as it were. We would rather a God who remains above the fray than one who gets involved in wars of conquest to effect his purposes. We don’t like the idea of trying to justify the ways of God when they seem unseemly. We likewise are uncomfortable with a God who takes on flesh and blood and dies for us. Many Christian heresies are efforts to sanitize this event. I don’t want to say that is what the authors are doing here. They obviously care deeply about scripture. But I also don’t think we can soften the shocking effect of these passages, or should. These passages remind us both of the tragedy of the human condition, and that God accommodated that human condition in not remaining aloof from war and death even as God worked out redemptive purposes for humankind, first through Israel, then for all of us.




Review: Change Your Questions, Change Your Life

change your questions

Change Your Questions, Change Your LifeMarilee Adams (Foreword by Marshall Goldsmith). San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2015.

Summary: Builds on the insight that the kinds of questions we ask shape our actions, and focuses on learning to ask “learner” rather than “judger” questions.

Marilee Adams proposes that the kinds of questions we ask of ourselves and of others, whether they be spouses, work colleagues, or coachees, profoundly shape our actions and our lives. She calls this Question Thinking. She proposes that we choose between two types of paths, two types of questions: the Judger path and the Learner path. For example:

  • Judger asks: What’s wrong with me?  Learner asks: What do I value about myself?
  • Judger asks: What’s wrong with him/her? Learner asks: What do I appreciate about him or her?
  • Judger asks: Whose fault is it? Learner asks: Am I being responsible?

Often, when we are in Judger, we feel hopeless, depressed, uptight and we feel ourselves tensing up. In Learner, we relax. Adams uses a tool called the Choice Map to illustrate these paths and the Judger Pit when we are controlled by Judger questions.

We all have a Judger in us, but Adams offers hope in terms of switching questions. This is rooted in learning to become an observer of when we are in Judger, accepting the Judger in us, and learning to ask questions that move us into Learner beginning with “Am I in Judger?”, “Is this what I want to feel or do?”, “Where would I rather be?”, and “How else can I think about this?” (a very helpful question!). Often this leads to questioning our assumptions. Another tool she provides is the ABCD process (Aware, Breathe!, Curiosity, Decide).

When a leader develops a Learner perspective, he or she is positioned to develop a learner team. It begins with changing the questions one asks with a team, but also training them in the Choice Map so they can become aware of when they are in Judger or Learner. A tool that particularly energizes Learner in teams is Q-Storming, that is brainstorming Learner Questions.

Adams presents this material through the story of Ben, a talented manager whose team is failing. Ben is struggling and ready to resign until Alexa his boss refers him to Joseph, who coaches him in Question Thinking and learning to make the switch from Judger to Learner. She introduces different Question Thinking tools through this narrative as Ben experiences a transformation in his marriage and his work as he moves from Judger to Learner.

The book concludes with Twelve Tools for leadership, coaching and life, and exercises the reader can use to implement these tools in their own context.

While I suspect that this approach is not the “magic bullet” for every situation, Adams’ insight seems important. Our self talk, indeed our self-questioning does reflect a mindset, one that can foster either negativity and self-protection, or a positive atmosphere that respects and looks for the best in oneself and others and what they can do. It seemed to me that the critical insight of this book is that of questioning our assumptions, and asking ourselves if there are other ways to think about the situations we encounter. Often, we get locked into one way of seeing things, often one that doesn’t do justice, either to us, or to the others in our lives. Adams’ approach helps us get unlocked.


Review: Women in God’s Mission

Women in Gods Mission

Women in God’s MissionMary T. Lederleitner. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2018.

Summary: An account of research into the many ways women are leading in God’s mission around the world, the distinctive traits in their service and leadership, the challenges they experience around gender discrimination, and the conditions under which they do their best work.

No matter what you believe about women in leadership, women are serving and leading in ways that are advancing God’s global mission. Mary Lederleitner researched their stories, giving an account of their leadership, the distinctive traits that mark their work, the challenges they face because of their gender and how they cope engage these, and what conditions foster the opportunity for them to serve and lead with excellence. In introducing her study, Lederleitner writes:

“My desire is to share stories of faithful and trusted women, so other agendas or issues do not derail the conversation about women in God’s mission. Other people can write books that argue points of view. The purpose for my book is to bring the voices of respected women from approximately thirty nations to the dialogue about leadership in general, and to dialogue about service and leadership in God’s mission specifically.”

This story approach runs through the book, beginning with “Appreciating Their Stories” in Part One. She documents the incredible variety of ways women are leading in networks, new missions, health organizations, in executive roles and in their families, and much more, with a deep sense of the privilege of being able to advance God’s mission in all these ways. Yet they often have faced challenges because of their gender and creatively responded. Many had a deep sense early in life of their leadership calling and struggled between faithfulness to God’s calling and cultural expectations and limitations.

Lederleitner teased out seven distinctive traits in these women, which she summarizes as “The Faithful Connected Servant.”

  1. Leadership is not about them but God
  2. A deep commitment to prayer.
  3. A preference for collaborative leadership.
  4. A holistic view of mission.
  5. Perseverance despite difficulties and injustices.
  6. Intense care for mission impact.
  7. A commitment to excellence and continuing personal growth.

Part Two elaborates these seven qualities, illustrating them with a variety of leadership stories. As a man who has worked with women leaders, I’ve witnessed all of these traits, and found that they have stretched my own leadership. I appreciated seeing these named.

Part Three explores the reality of gender discrimination, from the abuses women endure in society to ways they are discriminated against in the workplace in terms of promotion compensation, invisibility, and having to prove themselves in ways not expected of men. She explores both the ways women sometimes accommodate established patterns of discrimination, and what women do when, out of a sense of call, they cannot accommodate.

Part Four is especially important for men to read, because we can play a vital role in unleashing the gifts of excellence women bring to the church. It begins with husbands who are not threatened by their wives but delight in their gifts and accomplishments and sacrifice so they have the opportunity to excel. It means changing our metaphor in the workplace from a fear of women as temptress (usually the man’s problem that he needs to take responsibility for) to one of seeing each other as “sacred siblings.” It means men opening opportunities for women to step forward. She concludes this section by identifying remaining issues ranging from health and family issues to equity in the workplace.

What I most appreciate with Lederleitner’s story-telling approach is that she is not perpetuating a theological polemic but rather describing present and possible realities for women, the admirable work they are doing in serving and leading, even when limited by structures or theological positions. She shows the barriers the church erects, apart from the theological discussion, in which we hurt those who seek to serve and advance God’s mission.

This is a book men need to read! We need to understand both the internal struggle, and external conditions that make it hard for women to say “yes” to God’s invitations to serve and lead, and how we often make it harder. Men in leadership of ministries and agencies need to understand the potential for the mission of our organizations to be more effectively advanced when the women among us are fully able to lead well. Empowering women doesn’t come at the expense of dis-empowering men, but rather multiplies the power of all of us to fulfill God’s mission. Given the challenges facing the Christian mission in the modern world, that seems a good thing.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.


Review: Leadership in Turbulent Times


Leadership in Turbulent TimesDoris Kearns Goodwin. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018.

Summary: A study of how four presidents led the nation during turbulent times, tracing their awakening leadership ambitions, the adversity that formed their character, and lessons from how they led.

What distinguishes great leadership from the ordinary or the mediocre? Are leaders born or made? Are leaders great because of, or in spite of, their times? For answers to these and other questions about leadership, many have studied different U.S. Presidents, individuals with, arguably, the most challenging leadership job in the world. Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin has made a career of studying presidents, publishing four landmark biographies on Lyndon Johnson, Franklin Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt, (and his successor William Howard Taft). In this work, she returns to these four figures, and considers them side by side–four very different men, each who met great challenges and decisively led the nation through them.

The book is organized into three parts. The first traces the awakening ambition of each man. Lincoln leaves an abusive father, educates himself, establishes a law practice and makes his first run for office. Teddy Roosevelt grows up mentored by a respected and wealthy father, overcomes physical weakness, marries Alice, who he met while in college, and goes to the New York legislature “rising like a rocket.” Franklin Roosevelt, a distant relative of Theodore, enjoyed strong formative relationships with both parents, was sociable, learning more by listening than by reading, meeting the president as a young man, and charting a career trajectory that followed in Teddy’s path. Lyndon Johnson was described as a “steam engine in pants,” who learned early to find paths to power by getting near the powerful, beginning with work as an assistant to his college president.

The second part looks at the role adversity played in the lives of each man and how it deepened and focused their ambitions. Lincoln, who went to the legislature with a program of infrastructure improvements, left office after a term, in shame, unable to fulfill his pledge to marry Mary Todd, because of the failure of the economy and the collapse of the programs he helped start. He was depressed to the point that friends considered the threat of suicide. He determined that “he must die or be better.” Teddy Roosevelt lost his beloved wife and his mother within hours, and fled to a ranch in the west where work with tough and resilient men formed his health and healed his soul. He resolved to return, beginning a career as a progressive reformer that eventually took him to the presidency. Franklin Roosevelt was struck down in the prime of life with polio, and rebuilt his upper body strength, started a polio clinic at Sulphur Springs, and finally was convinced and convinced others that he could pursue the highest office. Lyndon Johnson, shortly after becoming Senate Majority Leader has a heart attack, a determines to return to the social programs, including civil rights, that had been at the heart of his early ambitions but had gotten lost in a quest for political power.

The final part looks at how each led during the turbulent time in which they were president–Lincoln in the Civil War and making the Emancipation Proclamation, Teddy Roosevelt in using his office to resolve a protracted national coal strike, Franklin Roosevelt in turning around the country and giving it hope in the depths of the Depression, and Johnson, in succeeding to the office after the Kennedy assassination, and passing a sweeping program of social legislation from civil and voting rights to Medicare.

In the third part, Goodwin draws lessons from the leadership of each president. Here, for example, are the lessons drawn from Lincoln’s presidency:

  • Acknowledge when failed policies demand a change in direction.
  • Gather firsthand information, ask questions.
  • Find time and space in which to think.
  • Exhaust all possibility of compromise before imposing unilateral executive power.
  • Anticipate contending viewpoints.
  • Assume full responsibility for a pivotal decision.
  • Understand the emotional needs of each member of the team.
  • Refuse to let past resentments fester, transcend personal vendetta.
  • Set a standard of mutual respect and dignity; control anger.
  • Shield colleagues from blame.
  • Maintain perspective in the face of both accolades and abuse.
  • Find ways to cope with pressure, maintain balance, replenish energy.
  • Keep your word.
  • Know when to hold back, when to move forward.
  • Combine transactional and transformational leadership.
  • Be accessible, easy to approach.
  • Put ambition for the collective interest above self-interest.

Each point is elaborated with specific examples. One gains both an appreciation of the personal greatness of each president, and the hard and soft skills of each president. Obviously, this is a great text for any who aspire to lead, if one has the drive, like Lincoln, to be better. It also sets a high bar in the qualities we look for in our presidents. She goes lightly on shortcomings, apart from a discussion of the failure of Johnson’s handling of Vietnam.

Having read three of the four presidential books by Doris Kearns Goodwin, I wondered if this would just be a re-hash of her prior works, re-treading old material. Certainly, she draws upon that and her narrative of working with Lyndon Johnson tracks closely with that in her Johnson book. What is fresh and distinct in this book is how she focuses in on leadership, as well as the setting of these four presidents side by side. Each of the succeeding presidents she studies was influenced by the former–Teddy Roosevelt by Abraham Lincoln, Franklin by Teddy, Johnson by Franklin Roosevelt. This book is a challenge, in what many of us would consider a turbulent time, to the kind of people we will be, and the kind of people we choose to serve in leading us.